This is the first in a series of three installments on Scotch tasting, as I research and prepare for my upcoming trip to Scotland. In this first piece, I will look into how Scotch is made, and how one should go about tasting it. In the second installment, I examine how whiskey – and Scotch in particular – is made. In the third installment, I will detail my itinerary and planned stops at distilleries along the way. Unfortunately, it looks like now that I might not be able to hit my favorite Scotch distillery, Laphroaig, given its remote and removed location. Bleah.
How to taste
While one often finds whiskey served in crystal tumblers, to best appreciate its aromas, experts recommend tulip-shaped glasses, which better direct the fragrance directly to one’s nose.
Like wine, one can appreciate the quality of a whiskey from its color. In general, the darker the color of the whiskey, the longer it has been aged in wood, and the older it is.
Also like wine, you could judge the weight of the whiskey by observing its tears. Swirl the whiskey around in the glass, and observe how the legs run down the side. If they run quickly, then the whiskey is most likely a light-bodied and/or a young one.
Next, bring the glass to your nose and take a breath – not a deep one mind, in case the alcoholic perfumes destroy your sensitive sense of smell. Then, add a splash of water (not ice, like they like to do it in bars, and not cold either), and then breath in the perfumes again. The water will reduce the alcoholic content of the whiskey, as well as raise its temperatures slightly to promote evaporation. According to Scotchwhisky.com, water “opens up the spirit” of the whiskey by breaking down the ester chains and freeing the volatile aromatics. Personally, I prefer to sniff and sip my whiskey neat first before adding water to it, just to get different senses. Whiskey aficionados would also urge the use of soft water, or better yet, water used in the production of the whiskey being tasted.
Finally, after all that ceremony, lift the glass to your lips and allow a small sip. Take a couple seconds to swirl the liquid around with your tongue, to savor its mouthfeel – its viscosity, texture, and, according to Scotchwhisky.com, the “pungency” – “essentially an evaluation of pain – from irritation to unbearable.” The forward tip of your tongue tastes sweet flavors, the sides and the middle the sour and salty flavors, and the back of your tongue the bitter flavors.
No matter how good a whiskey (or wine, for that matter) is though, it’s bound to disappoint if its finish doesn’t stand up to the taste. When the last drops have been drunk, what is the lingering after taste?